Recently I volunteered to run a writing workshop, as part of an annual arts festival in my area (www.borealjam.com). We went to a historical school, sat down at the old wooden desks, and got down to business.
The focus of the workshop was including concrete details in our writing. Details are so important. As Janet Burroway notes, details are what convince and engage readers. Think of CSI – the reason we (or at least I) find the plots at all plausible is the specific details. Natalie Goldberg advises writers to think of details as the ingredients. Add your own heat and energy, and you get a black forest cake, or apple pie, or whatever. This piece of writing is a beautiful example.
I took part in the writing exercises as well, focusing on our setting (Moosehead School). While writing about the school, I decided to make it the setting for an important turning point for my protagonist, Darby Swank. Originally, I was going to have this take place during a visit to Fort Pitt,but the school is closer to her home base and makes more sense. Maybe I’ll still use Frenchman’s Butte/Fort Pitt as a setting later on. Or if not in this story, in another.
I really tried to nail down the feeling of being in a one-room school in the summer. The buzz of flies, the black spider with the fat white abdomen on the green steps. The white exterior with green trim. Inside photos of school alumni lined the walls. Past visitors had signed the chalk board, including the latest class of graduates. It was so neat to see years of signatures layered one on top of the other.
Here is a slideshow of photos from Frenchman Butte, Fort Pitt and Moosehead School. For more photos from the arts festival, visit www.borealjam.com.
I was really impressed with the people who took the workshop. As people shared their work, I was amazed at how many great writers we had in the room, even though they didn’t necessarily consider themselves writers. Whether they were hammering out a poem or prose, people painted vivid pictures. One interesting aspect was that many of the people in my workshop were visual artists, and I think this helped, as they understood the need for concrete detail and the creative process. I hope they keep up their writing.
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. Natalie Goldberg. Publisher: Shambhala Publications Inc.
Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. Janet Burroway. Publisher: HarperCollins.